Oh Good Lord what has the SWP gone and done NOW?

It shouldn’t matter. It really shouldn’t matter, should it, what goes on in the Socialist Workers Party. Their membership is roughly the average home gate at Mansfield Town. By the time I left them, in 2007, the most common comment I heard about them was ‘Oh. Are they still going?’ the way you might refer to Bernard Cribbins.

But somehow they’ve got themselves in such a mess that thousands of people have been gripped by it, as if it’s a real life Trotskyite soap opera, with onlookers settling before the internet with a tub of ice cream for the latest episode and gasping “Oh my God they’ve called the faction leader a disgraceful liberal moralist, I can’t wait to see what happens tomorrow.”

Articles, forums and comment sections on their travails have reached beyond the political sections of online-land; at one point Mumsnet was among the sites discussing it. There are probably discussions on winemaking forums, in which someone has written “These allegations against a leading member of the SWP have made me reconsider when to crush this year’s crop of elderberries.”

I’ve wasted whole periods of a day reading this stuff, until feeling the shamed sense of over-indulgence you get after eating an entire Swiss roll in the morning.

Part of my excuse is that I was a member for loads of years, and know many of the people at the centre of this pickle. But also, it does matter, for a whole pile of reasons.

The immediate cause is that in 2012 the party leaders reported a complaint had been made by a teenage woman, who alleged that during an affair she’d been having with one of the most senior members, a man of almost 50, he had raped her.

There had been rumours of ‘an incident’ at the previous year’s conference, but the members weren’t told the details, and after a brief mention of him being involved in ‘difficulties’, a standing ovation was orchestrated for the man concerned.

The woman was somewhat less than satisfied with this outcome, and as more members heard the full story the party decided to refer the ‘complaint’ to their Disputes Committee, to ‘investigate’ the matter. All eight people on this committee had worked with the accused for several years, most were his friends, and would you believe it, they decided the case was ‘Not proven’, so no action was to be taken against him (although the chair of the committee dissented, declaring the accused had behaved inappropriately).

At the party conference in January 2012 the members were asked to approve the Disputes Committee report. During the discussion, it was revealed by a witness to the investigation that in its course the woman had been asked about another relationship she’d been in, and about her drinking habits. It also turned out she had asked to speak at the conference, but was told she wouldn’t be allowed in, and was now in a state of distress, as it’s not hard to imagine.

And it became known that SWP members who knew about the issue, and were uneasy about it, had been expelled from the party for discussing it on Facebook. Members who objected to any of this were told they were guilty of “bourgeois morality” and accused of capitulating to feminism.

The conference voted, narrowly, to accept the report. But someone who was there leaked a transcript of the discussion onto the internet.

The reaction amongst almost anyone who saw this was of bewildered horror, so at this point, and this took guile and dedication, SWP leaders managed to make things even worse.

The leading body, the Central Committee, declared the issue was closed, and no debate or discussion amongst members would be permitted. Presumably at this point, if an SWP member was asked how they could justify dealing with a rape allegation by arranging an investigation run by mates of the accused, they were supposed to change the subject, or to really earn points with the leadership, start playing a harmonica.

Unsurprisingly, the discussions did continue, with hundreds of members professing outrage. So Alex Callinicos, a leading figure in the SWP, wrote an article condemning the critics, humbly titled In Defence of Leninism.

It begins, and this is an article written to defend their medieval handling of a rape allegation, remember, with a series of sentences such as “The theoretical development of Marxism requires above all deepening and updating Marx’s critique of political economy.”

To his credit, no one’s likely to say ‘Ah, that old cliché. That’s always wheeled out in cases of sexual abuse’.

Maybe if a leading SWP member was accused of battering a pensioner to rob her purse, he’d reply “Marx was adamant that the 1848 revolutions in Europe represented a final break between the emergent working class and capitalism. Can I go now?”

In 3,500 words the central incident is barely referred to, except as a “Difficult disciplinary case,” in which “Scandalously, a minority inside the SWP are refusing to accept the democratically reached conference decisions.”

Now trade unionists who had participated in SWP activities wrote a joint letter, to explain they wouldn’t align with them again. Many of the SWP’s international groups declared their fury, and dozens of speakers who had appeared at their events declared they would no longer do so. A website that had been run for years by a prominent SWP member complained that critics of the Central Committee were being subjected to “Bullying, intimidation, and threats of violence.”

To which the SWP’s leaders replied “There is no evidence of damage to the party.” And with a magnificent sense of perspective, Alex Callinicos said that SWP members who opposed the leaders would face “lynch-mobs.” Presumably, if someone tried to drag him away from lynching some poor sod he’d scream “Leave me alone, can’t you see I’m deepening and updating Marx’s critique of political economy.”

Almost the entire student section of the SWP left, or joined the faction against the leaders, to which those leaders declared this was a sign of how SWP students felt demoralised following the introduction of tuition fees. Other people who’ve been accused of sexual abuse must envy how the party gets away with these explanations. Jonathan King must think ‘I should have said people were only upset with me as they were demoralised following an increase in the rate of VAT’.

Most people, who have little awareness of the SWP, may conclude that the leaders and their loyal followers are simply psychotic, and not in a good way. So just stay well away. Others may feel this is all so predictable to not be worth stating, as Trotskyite groups are, by their nature, nuts. So you might as well write an account of the Mafia, gasping “You’ll never guess what, they turned out quite violent.”

There’s certainly a part of me that thinks the SWP has become so adept and successful at demoralising and antagonising everyone in their own party, if they really want to help the cause of socialism they should join the Conservatives.

But they’re not all crazy, and that’s more chilling than if they were. My own initial instincts were that they can’t really be doing this, these people I used to know and drink with, and laughed with and did fund-raising benefits all over the bloody place for. I went to Telford once for the SWP. Surely I wouldn’t have done that if they were mad.

Now many of those I knew from those times are publicly backing this peculiar behaviour. The SWP produced a list of 500 of its members who supported the party’s conduct. I scrolled down this list gingerly edging towards the parts where, alphabetically, names I knew might appear, and I willed the Hs or Ns past in the hope they wouldn’t be there. Some weren’t but several were, people whose settees I’d drunk beer on and whose kids had played with my kids popping up, next to a declaration that proved they’d say or do anything, defend any act no matter how appalling, to protect one of their ‘leaders’, in a manner approaching that of a cult.

Yet the people behaving in this irrational way did start out rational. I recall when it was an education being in the SWP, not in how to be at war with everyone but because you found imaginative ways to engage with the outside world, which was fairly important as this was by some distance bigger than the world inside the SWP.

The names on that list belonged to people who became socialists because they were enraged by war or poverty or racism, or maybe by the way women are treated in society, and they wished to combat those injustices. Many were instrumental in the Anti-Nazi-League, Stop the War and countless local campaigns.

So how could this change have happened? Maybe it started in the 1990s, when the SWP began to shrink, probably due to socialism becoming a harder product to sell. But it refused to acknowledge it was shrinking, preferring to insist it was constantly growing. Then, if anyone pointed out this clearly wasn’t true, they were told sharply that they were mistaken.

Like Basil Fawlty, rather than admit to telling small lies, they decided to protect them, by telling bigger and more ridiculous lies. And once that happens, internal democracy is under threat. Contest the distortions and you have to be denounced as an enemy.

Or maybe it came from such a determination to defend socialist ideas, against all orthodox thinking, that they became impervious to any criticism at all. They became so defensive that any suggestion of doing things differently was met with the phrase that this would “Betray the tradition.” Even the internet was treated with heavy suspicion, with blogs and websites set up or contributed to by members frowned upon or banned.

Whatever the reasons, debate with people outside the party was replaced with vitriol. A trade unionist who usually backed the SWP disagreed with them on an issue, so a story was invented that they’d rigged the vote to get their union position. Often when people left the SWP, it was announced that they’d never been members in the first place.

The organisation which, whatever its faults, had once been a cauldron of exuberance, debate and enthusiasm, was edging towards becoming a cult. And that’s the most alarming aspect of this story, that cults aren’t circles of people who took too much acid and dance naked in the woods, they’re people who took one small decision to forego independence of thought for the defence of their group, and once they started couldn’t stop.

SWP members who have taken a stand on the current issue seem bewildered as to why their leaders behave in this illogical way. But the reason may be that the debate isn’t really about the allegations, or attitudes towards feminism, it’s about accepting that you do as you’re told, that the party is under attack at all times so you defend the leaders no matter what, that if the party’s pronouncement doesn’t match reality, it must be reality that’s wrong. Dissent on an issue and your crime is not to be wrong about the issue, it’s that you dissented at all.

So it does matter, because the end result of this process is that many bright eloquent fighters against bullying have become the bullies, and many potential bright eloquent fighters against bullying may be put off from participating in that fight, if they think it will end with behaviour like this.

And it matters to me, because I can’t claim to be entirely innocent. I was in this party for 28 years. I must have accepted claims that didn’t make sense, and ignored accounts of appalling behaviour, or sighed and hoped the tricky issue I heard about would go away of its own accord. Somehow the critical faculties that led me to join a socialist group deserted me with regard to the group itself.

It matters because anyone considering taking part in the activities of the left is entitled to ask how we can ensure that abuse of women won’t be dismissed as ‘moralism’.

And because there’s now an enduring sense of uneasy rage against the injustices of the free market, which encompasses a brilliant array of diverse characters, and between us we have to work out how to turn that into an effective opposition, without making the same mistakes. Surely we can establish movements and forums in which we can debate our aims and differences, in a spirit that inspires and invigorates all who take part, rather than berating anyone who disagrees.

There’s a mass of disparate individuals, committed to opposing the values of the bankers, the tax exiles and the sneering face of free market authority. Surely we can embrace that enthusiasm and energy, and encourage it rather than demoralise it.

We can’t ensure that no one in our ranks will behave appallingly, but we can ensure that everyone is accountable, so that no one is allowed special protection because they have a place on a committee.

Over the last few weeks I’ve almost dared to be optimistic. Effective characters such as Owen Jones, Salma Yaqoob, Caroline Lucas, Laurie Penny, along with Unite and other unions, and organisers of UK Uncut are launching the People’s Assembly, which could represent the most encouraging attempt for years, to create a movement that can attract the heaps of people appalled by the current order that’s running society.

So we have to follow the same rules as anyone who wants to win the support of a wide layer of people, by creating an atmosphere that attracts rather than repels, in which everyone who contributes feels a sense of accomplishment, where differences are celebrated rather than sneered at, and in which the many inevitable mistakes are part of the glorious chaos of building a genuine movement.

That movement will be the product of all who take part in it, and won’t be an end in itself to be protected no matter how it behaves, but a means to an end, which is a world less cruel, more exhilarating, less bullying and more fun, that it was when we found it.

PS Since writing the start of this I’ve looked up the average home attendance of Mansfield Town, and this season it’s been 2,389, which is much higher than the SWP membership. After all this I’d guess they’ll be close to Braintree, on 624.

Enough arsing about, let’s sort out the world.

Right, that’s enough, now what are we going to do about it?

I genuinely hope that George Osborne does it on purpose. That he descends from the podium after a speech and sniggers to Cameron “I said ‘We’re all in it together’ again. Haaa haaaa, I don’t know how I get away with it?”

He continues to use this slogan, this son of a 17th baronet, worth £4 million and heir to many millions more, as he explains the necessity of cutting the services, libraries, pensions and payments to the poor, the disabled, and those who will never inherit a single baronet, no matter how hard they train for it.

The crisis we’re all apparently joined in, it’s generally agreed, was caused by the failures, greed and recklessness of a clique we call, for short, the bankers.

Yet the people having to pay for their chaos are not the bankers. They’re the disabled and the homeless, the firefighters and lollipop ladies and anyone who depends on them. Maybe George Osborne believes these were the culprits, that it was lollipop ladies telling kids “Wait by the road a minute, love, I’m just loaning ten million quid on the basis that property values are certain to double every six months forever, and award myself half a million as a bonus. Right, now that’s done we’re safe to cross.”

For the poor to pay a major contribution towards the crisis created by the bankers would be a screaming injustice, but it’s so much worse than that. Because one of the few professions that doesn’t have to cough up is the bankers themselves. And to ease their pain of watching everyone apart from themselves suffer, one of the few measures taken by this government that gives more money away rather than less, has been a tax cut for the richest one per cent.

There are many consequences of all this, and one is that many people in Britain now express their feelings about economics with a theory that goes, more or less, “Aaaaaaagh.” Sometimes they go into more detail, adding “The BASTARDS.” And then “Aaaaaaaagh.”

But the coalition’s outrages are only part of the frustration felt by so many. Because there can hardly have been a time when so many people, disgusted by their government, have been at such a loss as to what we can do about it.

Until recently, many people found a home for their outrage against unfairness in society, in the Labour Party. But the New Labour years, if we’re being harsh, weren’t all that successful at promoting peace and equality. Although there are Labour members who are wonderfully effective, such as Tony Benn and Owen Jones, many of their activists left or became disillusioned.

Left wing groups have collapsed more spectacularly, in a series of crises that makes you wonder whether their activities are organised by the scriptwriters of Eastenders, leaving another layer of socialists and campaigners in confusion.

But another piece of this jigsaw of frustration is that the basis for an opposition is evident. The government is by no means overwhelmingly popular, and the Lib-Dem part of it widely held in contempt. Anyone who watches Question Time knows the easiest way for a panellist to win a round of applause is to make an angry speech about greedy bankers. When a few hundred activists moved into tents under the ‘Occupy’ banner, they won the sympathy of millions and forced ministers to appear on the news making unconvincing attempts to justify their actions.

When an opposition has appeared credible, it has sometimes won an astounding level of support, such as when George Galloway won the election in Bradford, or when Caroline Lucas was elected in Brighton for the Green Party. Campaigns such as the one in Lewisham to prevent the closure of the A and E department at the hospital, have amassed tens of thousands. But for the most part these moments remain in one area, or pass quickly, then it’s back to yelling at the telly, or if you’re really dedicated, the radio as well.

Would it be possible, I find myself thinking, to bring together those who share these frustrations, to connect with each other?

Some people are in groups or parties, such as UK Uncut, the Greens or Labour, but I’m sure they’d acknowledge there are many people who’d be willing to contribute towards a squabble with George Osborne, beyond their own supporters.

It might be tempting to consider these thoughts, then conclude you’d done your bit by thinking them, and if you wanted to do any more you could occasionally arrange them into a moan. But it seems enough people are thinking this way at once, that a genuine movement is possible.

For example, Owen Jones, one of the most eloquent opponents of the Coalition’s austerity, is eager to help set up such a network. Salma Yaqoob, who many will know as an inspiring opponent of the war in Iraq, is another. Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, feels the same, as does Laurie Penny, the journalist who wrote powerfully as part of the Occupy movement.

The trade unions are committed to establishing this network, which can link the campaigns, the meetings, the petitions and the squeals of anguish that try to prevent the cruelties of austerity. Almost every major union has pledged to back such a movement, which it will call a ‘People’s Assembly’.

And crucially, many of this large and growing frustrated TV-abusing section of society, have greeted the idea with enthusiasm, and even a hint of optimism. For example a single letter in a newspaper announcing the Assembly attracted hundreds of initial supporters. So this is the plan.

Within the next few weeks, a series of gatherings in the biggest cities in Britain will take place, to launch the Assembly in each area. From there groups can be set up that will discuss ways to oppose the barrage of attacks coming from the coalition, leading to a People’s Assembly on June 22 in London. You can register for that day here www.coalitionofresistance.org.uk

Many possibilities can open up once the connections are made. A group in one part of the country can discuss how to support a campaign to defend a hospital in another part. Even a joint letter to a local newspaper is an improvement on a lonely individual seethe.

It will be a network that embraces supporters of different groups and parties, as well as those with no affiliations. And it will bring together enough people eager to participate, who would rather do something than nothing, who would rather find themselves alongside others who agree than remain on their own.

The evidence suggests that wherever a community unites and campaigns to defend its hospitals, its libraries, it parks and its people, it succeeds at least in part. The aim of the People’s Assembly will be simply to tap into the vast amount of humanity, imagination and wit of those who wish to curtail the injustices swirling around us, and create a place that we all feel better for being in, and all feel better for having helped to create.

That’s all.

And you can carry on swearing at George Osborne on the telly as well if you like.

So leave a name or a message if you’re interested and we can add it to the many who have already said they are, and to show I’m fair, I’ll even let you leave a name and a message if you’re not interested and think I’m completely round the sodding bend.

Town in Steel (or some such pun that doesn’t quite work)

One joy of making the In Town series is experiencing the immense, sometimes ridiculous sense of pride in each place we visit, especially when there’s nothing obvious to show off about. Anyone can be proud of New York or Venice but it takes guts, talent, determination and an iron will to be proud of Corby.

No one there boasts about the panoramic views, because the most prominent view is of a 1970s concrete shopping centre that looks like a giant jumble sale, that’s infuriatingly complicated to find your way out of, so in desperation you head up some steps that lead to the sort of locked rusty gates you clamber over when being chased by Bruce Willis, then back past Greggs the bakers for the sixth time, when you become reconciled to setting up home in Poundland until you can persuade air rescue to send a helicopter.

It wouldn’t be easy to sell Corby as a tourist resort. The Holiday Inn franchise, bless them, gives it a go, and we stayed at the Corby branch of their franchise. I wonder how truthful that name is, and how many people decide that, for a change, instead of the beach they’re going for two weeks to a spot by a breaker’s yard on an industrial estate in Corby.

So the pride doesn’t revolve around its grand buildings or celebrities or restaurants, it stems from its ability to emerge from adversity.

The book Corby Works informs you humbly “Today Corby prospers again: a Phoenix risen from the ashes of its once proud heritage. A town that refused to die has, against all the odds, survived to see the dawning of a new age. A monument to its own endeavours and a shining example to others.”

It’s a speech that I think has been borrowed from Alexander the Great following his invasion of Egypt, but can easily be adapted to suit the re-opening of a fitness centre in Corby.

A project called Our Corby collated interviews and poems to create a film and a book, and found pride in unexpected areas, such as the history of the football team. For example there’s this magnificent piece –

“The unmistakable roar of a crowd, a goalmouth in silhouette,

The thud of a pass, the smell of grass, macassar oil and sweat.

This is a field where hearts are won, where names are muddied or made,

Where myths are born and chances torn and games like this one are played.

A lofted shot that clears the bar and leaves the keeper stretching up.

Yes that’s right, it’s the Inter-Village Graham Fraser Memorial Cup.”

But mostly the pride comes from its unique and brief history. It was built in the nineteen-thirties, in Northamptonshire, around the new steelworks, attracting unemployed steelworkers, many of which walked from Glasgow or Aberdeen for a job. So many came that the town retains a Scottish accent, even amongst people who’ve never been to Scotland.

Corby boasts the biggest Glasgow Rangers supporters Club outside Glasgow in the world. It hosts a Highland Games, and has the greatest sales of Irn-Bru outside Scotland, a fact cheered by the audience, in the way a Liverpool crowd might cheer if you mentioned they were five times winners of the European Cup.

I met Don and Irene, both in their seventies, at the Grampian Club. Don’s father had walked from Larkhall, near Glasgow to Corby in 1932, and though Don had hardly ever been to Scotland he had a smooth Scottish borders accent. He wore a jacket and tie to the club, and smiled as his wife told of the shows she’d seen at The Cube theatre, where I’d be doing the recording the next night. “The harmonies were glorious”, Irene said, “And I felt lifted, truly lifted.”

“I didn’t go”, said Don, “I was happier at The Grampian with a pint.”

Don did tell me an old steelworkers’ poem his dad often quoted, which also revealed the importance of the Golden Wonder crisp factory in the town. It went

‘I’m doon at the steel works, I work day and night

My wife’s making crisps, we have never a fight,

The reason we’re happy is clear de ye ken

My shift’s six to two and my wife’s two to ten’.

I mentioned the national steel strike of 1980 to Don, which he must have been involved with, but he giggled and gestured as if it had somehow passed him by.

Instead he and Irene talked of the times they went fishing, and swimming in the river that’s now blocked off as it’s too dangerous, and how the steelworks dominated every aspect of the town; the soot that ruined your washing if the wind blew the wrong way, the giant flame known as the Corby Candle you could see from near Peterborough. And Don grinned at almost everything Irene said, and as I left she told me she was looking forward to the show, and Don said “I won’t be there myself, I’m happier here at the Grampian with a pint.”

Don had been one of 14,000 people employed at the steelworks, until 1979 when Margaret Thatcher, having become Prime Minister, announced a series of closures at British Steel, including the plant at Corby, and the union responded by calling a national strike.

It began in 1980, while I was far away in Kent, a teenager new to the world of political activism, so I was excited at the idea of the strike, because somehow I might collect money for it or something and maybe even meet a steelworker, or at least meet someone from the north.

At one point two steelworkers even slept in the living room, which was a shock to my mum when she found them. To be fair to her, it must be confusing when a story you only expect to see on the news makes its way into your living room. It was probably as unlikely as coming home during the war with Iraq and seeing Saddam Hussein boiling an egg in the kitchen.

I spent three exciting months with the steel strikers, so I felt a connection with Corby. Because its story revolves around the opening and closing of that steelworks, and the strike consumed the whole town. There were sure to be a host of anecdotes and stories, hilarious and chaotic and inspiring, to use for the show.

Louise, an effervescent woman who delighted in how she shocked her grandchildren by entering swimming races in open rivers, had worked in the canteen at the steelworks. She bubbled with pride at the new poets and playwrights in Corby, but seemed unable to remember many stories from the strike.

Iain, who’d made tubes, and whose father moved there in 1933, living for the first few months under a bush, was enthusiastic about the kids’ art project he’d helped to set up, but couldn’t remember much about the days of the closure.

And that was the pattern. They’d enthuse about the new library and leisure centre, and joyfully explain how every human attribute; intelligence, common courtesy, the ability to pole vault, will be done far better in Corby than by the filthy inhabitants of Kettering, which has the sheer nerve to be another town, eight miles away.

But ask about stories from the strike and the closure and you’d hear “Hmm, can’t remember.”

During the recording, I asked the audience if anyone had a story to tell from those days. “I have, I was on strike”, called a tall middle-aged man, and he got up to speak.

“Well, it was just, you know, we travelled about and went on marches, and well, huh, that was it really.”

“How many of you went?” I asked. “How did you get there?” “Who was the wildest person you met?”

But every answer was “Don’t know really”, and everyone shuffled a bit, until it felt as if the whole audience collectively passed a motion that went “I think you’d best move onto another subject, Mark.”

So I talked about the characters I’d met in the Working Men’s Club and their Cold War with Kettering, and they all chirped up again.

Afterwards in the bar, Irene told me how much she’d enjoyed the show, and said “We weren’t being rude, love, when we didn’t have a lot to say about the strike and the closure. But it wasn’t an easy time. Don marched from Corby to London with a banner. It made him angry about everything, we split up for a year because it was too much to live with. But we were lucky, two of our closes friends committed suicide in the months after the closure. So people would rather forget about those times really. But there are so many people helping each other out now, it’s making the town recover, and we’re very proud of that. Don’t get me wrong though, we loved the show. Don would have loved it too, but he does enjoy his pint at The Grampian.”

PS We hoped to go for a post-show swim in the open river, but it’s been blocked off for being too dangerous. So we had to make do with the disappointingly miserably comfortable one in the Holiday Inn.

After each show we raise a drink to the next destination, with a tipple apt for where we’re heading. As the next recording was in Chipping Norton, we asked the waiter in a curry house if they sold champagne. “Yes”, he gulped, excitedly, “Yes I think we have some.” He’d clearly never been asked this before and came back to say “We have this one, for ninety-five pounds.” So we had a brandy instead. It’s the thought that counts.

Bloody computers

The global issue of jokegate seems to be resolved. I received an apology from Victor Lewis Smith, so that’s fair enough I’d say. Now, as that seemed to work, I’ll write a letter to the Israeli government, then one to Robert Mugabe, and see if we can sort out the rest of the world as amicably.

Cher Mark,

Mean culpa mea culpa mea maxima culpa. Some years ago I wrote in The Guardian re Chris Morris stealing great chunks of my R4 stuff – “imitation is the sincerest form of being a thieving bastard”. You may use that line any time gratis.

I generate 99.9% of my own material, but I sometimes (almost without knowing) like to add 0.1% from elsewhere, to enrich the mix (bit like maintaining an old 2 stroke engine). Usually I give an attribution, but because this was a short-form scatter-gun piece, there wasn’t room for such civilities on this occasion. In the case of your line, I did know you’d said it, but I didn’t know you’d written it for the Independent, or used it in your stand-up shows. You used it in an interview you recorded with Keith Allen for the ‘Unlawful Killing’ film I produced about five years ago, and because I thought it was a brilliant off-the-cuff remark, and the film seems to have been suppressed, I thought it deserved a wider audience. Apparently, it has already had one.

Barry Crier once said to me that all jokes are on lease with no known owner. Just the other day I watched one of your fellow stand up performers recite -word for word – 2 paragraphs of old tat I had written years ago for the Standard. What should one do? I mean, Willie Hamilton MP, made almost exactly the same observation as you on Radio 4 about The Monarchy and the Tower in the 1970s. What should one do?

But, hey, we anti Monarchists mustn’t fight. I am doing an Establishment Club gig (backed by Lin Cook) with Keith on 23 jan at Ronnie Scott’s. There is a fee… are you about? It is kicking off.

Bloody computers

The global issue of jokegate seems to be resolved. I received an apology from Victor Lewis Smith, so that’s fair enough I’d say. Now, as that seemed to work, I’ll write a letter to the Israeli government, then one to Robert Mugabe, and see if we can sort out the rest of the world as amicably.

Cher Mark,

Mean culpa mea culpa mea maxima culpa. Some years ago I wrote in The Guardian re Chris Morris stealing great chunks of my R4 stuff – “imitation is the sincerest form of being a thieving bastard”. You may use that line any time gratis.

I generate 99.9% of my own material, but I sometimes (almost without knowing) like to add 0.1% from elsewhere, to enrich the mix (bit like maintaining an old 2 stroke engine).

Usually I give an attribution, but because this was a short-form scatter-gun piece, there wasn’t room for such civilities on this occasion. In the case of your line, I did know you’d said it, but I didn’t know you’d written it for the Independent, or used it in your stand-up shows. You used it in an interview you recorded with Keith Allen for the ‘Unlawful Killing’ film I produced about five years ago, and because I thought it was a brilliant off-the-cuff remark, and the film seems to have been suppressed, I thought it deserved a wider audience. Apparently, it has already had one.

Barry Crier once said to me that all jokes are on lease with no known owner. Just the other day I watched one of your fellow stand up performers recite -word for word – 2 paragraphs of old tat I had written years ago for the Standard. What should one do? I mean, Willie Hamilton MP, made almost exactly the same observation as you on Radio 4 about The Monarchy and the Tower in the 1970s. What should one do?

But, hey, we anti Monarchists mustn’t fight. I am doing an Establishment Club gig (backed by Lin Cook) with Keith on 23 jan at Ronnie Scott’s. There is a fee… are you about? It is kicking off.

A gracious reply


The global issue of jokegate seems to be resolved. I received an apology from Victor Lewis Smith, so that's fair enough I'd say. Now, as that seemed to work, I'll write a letter to the Israeli government, then one to Robert Mugabe, and see if we can sort out the rest of the world as amicably. 

Cher Mark,

Mean culpa mea culpa mea maxima culpa. Some years ago I wrote in The Guardian re Chris Morris stealing great chunks of my R4 stuff - "imitation is the sincerest form of being a thieving bastard". You may use that line any time gratis.

I generate 99.9% of my own material, but I sometimes (almost without knowing) like to add 0.1% from elsewhere, to enrich the mix (bit like maintaining an old 2 stroke engine). Usually I give an attribution, but because this was a short-form scatter-gun piece, there wasn't room for such civilities on this occasion. In the case of your line, I did know you'd said it, but I didn't know you'd written it for the Independent, or used it in your stand-up shows. You used it in an interview you recorded with Keith Allen for the 'Unlawful Killing' film I produced about five years ago, and because I thought it was a brilliant off-the-cuff remark, and the film seems to have been suppressed, I thought it deserved a wider audience. Apparently, it has already had one.

Barry Crier once said to me that all jokes are on lease with no known owner. Just the other day I watched one of your fellow stand up performers recite -word for word - 2 paragraphs of old tat I had written years ago for the Standard. What should one do? I mean, Willie Hamilton MP, made almost exactly the same observation as you on Radio 4 about The Monarchy and the Tower in the 1970s. What should one do?

But, hey, we anti Monarchists mustn't fight. I am doing an Establishment Club gig (backed by Lin Cook) with Keith on 23 jan at Ronnie Scott's. There is a fee... are you about? It is kicking off.

Fuck the Pope

3 January, 2013 14:10

A CHRISTMAS PICKPOCKET

With so many problems in the world, I thought I’d spend a few minutes dealing with one of the most serious; which is that something I wrote a few years ago for an episode of the Mark Steel Lectures, has been purloined by someone else. I wouldn’t normally take much notice, but the writer who swiped it is the TV reviewer, Victor Lewis Smith, known for being magnificently caustic in his own columns about television, including, I suppose it’s fair to add, about the Mark Steel Lectures. It’s all very flattering really, so in the spirit of literary letters between figures like George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells, I’ve sent him a message to thank him.

Dear Victor,

I would like to express my deep gratitude for your change of heart regarding my writing, which you have previously been highly critical of. It appears that now, you have not only developed an affection for the show, but you value it to the extent that you copy whole sections of it in your Christmas TV column.

I was so flattered to read the paragraph you wrote about the monarchy that went “Don’t give me that spiel about them being good for tourism. Does that means no tourists ever go to republics like France or the US? Or if they do, do they climb to the top of the Statue of Liberty, look down on Manhattan, and say: “Well, it’s a lovely view, but the lack of a monarch spoils it somehow”?”

Because this is almost an exact recital of a joke I wrote for a column in The Independent, and which I used to perform in my stand-up shows. I notice you’ve made one change, which is to substitute the Statue of Liberty for the Eiffel Tower, so I’ll bow to your superior instincts on that one. Now, instead of being forgotten, the joke has been revived for a whole new audience.

Other, less principled writers, might try to hide their attempt to use other people’s jokes by placing it in publications the original writer may not see. But you’re clearly more honest than that, and included it in the paper I write for myself.

Who knows, maybe I’ll soon have two columns in The Independent, one of which I don’t have to bother to write, but is a compilation of old pieces you’ve kindly put together yourself.

Also, I’m aware it can be harrowing to keep finding new ideas for a long running column so the temptation to use other people’s material to pad it out can be overwhelming, and as this was your second column for the paper, it’s understandable that by now you were running out of ideas.

And if you’d like to use any more of my jokes for anything else you’re doing, please let me know and I’ll see what I’ve got. Yours in appreciation,

Mark Steel

The Most Remarkable Thing

One group of us is mad. Maybe it’s us or maybe it’s the others but one of us must be.

“That’s the most remarkable thing I’ve ever seen”, said the commentator, as a boat floated down the Thames. How cruel of the BBC, to get someone to commentate on the Jubilee who’d never seen a boat before, or indeed anything as remarkable as a boat. They’ll probably get him to do the sailing at the Olympics next, so they can enjoy him hyperventilating as he gasps “Oh my God there’s LOADS of boats, they’re TRAVELLING through WATER, it’s a MIRACLE.”

For several days it’s gone on, presenters telling us about the truly marvellous overwhelming astonishing spectacle and wondering how the Queen manages to be quite so magnificent, until you feel they’re about to say ‘And she often beats Ronnie o’Sullivan over 35 frames of snooker, and she invented saucepans and can understand fish language. We are so so lucky she lets us have her as our Queen’.

Next week newspapers will publish photos of people who weren’t cheerful enough over the Jubilee weekend, telling the public ‘If you recognise any of these traitors ring our confidential hotline and get them arrested’. Then we’ll have a series of trials, with a judge growling “You are a disgusting thug who didn’t even have the decency to sing along to Obla di Obla da”, and handing out ten year sentences to set an example.

To be truly British we had to show our full range, by then being devastatingly sad about Philip being unable to go, even though he probably thought ‘Oh not Elton John again. I had enough of him at that funeral, I’ll pull the old dodgy bladder scam’.

But the oddest part is no one can explain what we were supposed to be celebrating. She’s been the Queen for sixty years, but all she has to do to be Queen is to be. As long as she exists, she’s the Queen, that’s how it works, it’s not like a boxing champion that has to keep seeing off challengers. If you’ve been an electrician for sixty years that’s worth celebrating, because you have to keep rewiring stuff to be one, but as long as she exists she’s the Queen. In effect people are spluttering ‘Isn’t she marvellous, still existing for us. Most of us wouldn’t have the stamina to keep on existing, but even at her age she puts in a full days existence seven days a week’.

That’s why royalists get in a tangle when they claim she’s doing a marvellous job, as if she’s earned her position on merit, having worked her way up after starting out as a humble princess.

But it would be churlish to deny a party, so next year we should do it all again, except for a random pensioner, with bunting and street parties and souvenir mugs and Huw Edwardes dribbling ‘There’s all of Ada’s family, waving from the balcony of her care home in Sunderland, she truly is the most remarkable woman there has ever been’.

Why it’s fun to come and visit you

I’m about to start another stand-up tour, which means, amongst other things, I’ll do interviews on local radio where I’ll be asked “So Mark, are you looking forward to coming to Hull?” What are you supposed to say to that? Do you say “Oh yes, I’ve always loved the Hull audiences, it’s as if the proximity to a huge bridge makes people extra jolly and receptive to fun”?

But equally you can’t say “Not particularly. I mean, Hull is hardly Ipswich is it?”

So before each interview I’ll think of Bewdley. It’s a little town in Worcestershire I’d hardly heard of, with quaint bridges and ducks and a sweet shop full of huge jars like in 1934 and a one-way system far too elaborate for what they need. I had a curry there, during which the waiter and a man who’d come to collect his take-away discussed the size of bait they use for fishing in the River Severn, which has never happened during any curry I’ve had in any other town.

I discovered two sides to its history, before doing a show at their festival. Stanley Baldwin, Prime Minister in the twenties and thirties was from there, and it has a safari park, which was in the national news a few years ago because the baboons escaped.

The show was in a hall at the main hotel in the town, and I was introduced by a delightfully over-organised woman who was on the parish festival committee, with a series of questions involving whether I needed sandwiches, soap, juice, a flannel, and several other items that I didn’t catch but may well have been a cushion, a palm tree, a skeleton and one of the statues from Easter Island. “No, I’m fine thanks, no I’m fine honestly”, I kept saying, but it would have been easier for us both if I’d said “Alright then, yes, I will have an unexploded doodlebug.”

Although I’ve never listened to it, I expect she’s a character in The Archers.

At the start of the show she introduced me, by insisting the audience sit in their designated seats, as it was full up so “You – yes YOU, sit down here, no NOT there, HERE. HERE. Can’t you see, HERE, what’s the matter with you?”

At one point during the first half I mentioned their connection with Stanley Baldwin, something like “He was the son of an industrialist, and as a young man was given two hundred thousand pounds, and went on to become Prime Minister during the General Strike. Isn’t it astonishing to think that back then it was acceptable for a Tory rolling in unearned wealth to run the country, by taking things off the poor while the rich got even richer. You couldn’t imagine such a thing now could you?”

It got a bigger laugh than I expected, a bit of a supplementary ‘Oo my word how cheeky’, as if for Bewdley this was the equivalent of a band smashing up their instruments or NWA forcing the audience to sing Fuck da Police, the sort of thing more likely to take place in an urban ghetto such as Worcester.

During the interval my helpful hostess giggled to me that the reason the Stanley Baldwin joke had provoked a reaction was the local Conservative MP was sat in the front row. Everyone apart from me was aware of this, and now I knew this I wasn’t sure whether to find it hilarious that he’d been forced to hear everyone laughing, or appalled that I’d reached a point in my life where the front row of my audience could include a Conservative MP. I don’t suppose Malcolm X was ever told “It should be a good night tonight as Harold Macmillan’s in, Mister X.”

In the second half I mentioned the safari park and the escaping baboons. “Is it true?” I asked, “That they really escaped?” The whole crowd shouted that it was true, and several people were eager to add details.

“What happened to the baboons?” I said. And with not a moment’s pause, as if it was scripted and rehearsed and we performed this every night, someone shouted “One of them was elected as the local MP.”

They collectively roared, except, I suppose, for the local MP, and it was brilliant because as well as funny it was unique. It could only make sense at that point, in that place, in Bewdley.

So I hope this second tour of my ‘In Town’ show, of talking about the quirky bits of bollocks that makes everywhere individual, and trying, if I can, to make some of the show about the town I’m in, will be fun to do. Because each night will be unique, depending on where I am. Whether it will be any good or not I’ve no idea, but it means I’m looking forward to going to Hull.

The details, incidentally, are here, but I shan’t be offended if you don’t come to all the shows. http://marksteelinfo.com/